Trench warfare is the bottom line in Notre Dame-Stanford

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

The video snippet reincarnated this week, the star of the six-second sequence — Notre Dame defensive end Isaac Rochell — pancaking former Stanford standout offensive tackle Andrus Peat in last year’s trench-fest.

“That was cool,” the humble Rochell acknowledged before nudging the subject in a different, more team-oriented direction.

It was way more than cool, more like opulent evolution in Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly’s eyes, four years removed from a 37-14 bullying by Stanford in which the Cardinal big bodies on both sides of the ball not only owned the line of scrimmage, but flaunted it.

In that 2010 game, the Irish managed 44 rushing yards on 23 carries and got stuffed on a pivotal fourth-and-one rush by then-ND running back Jonas Gray at midfield. And Kelly was prompted to call time out with five seconds left in the game, his first dose of scoreboard train wreck at Notre Dame, which dropped the Irish to 1-3 in Kelly’s first season.

"I'm glad coach Kelly called that last timeout," ND wideout/running back Theo Riddick said at the time. "He reminded us to keep fighting. He reminded us that we're out there for a purpose and to represent ND. And that's what we're going to keep doing.”

How that message was received and applied is evident in the way the 2015 version of Notre Dame-Stanford, Saturday night at Stanford Stadium (7:30 p.m. EST; FOX-TV), is shaping up. Not the least of which are the very high stakes.

CFP No. 6 Notre Dame (10-1), ranked fourth in the AP poll, is playing to strengthen its argument for inclusion in the second-ever College Football Playoff.

CFP No. 9 and AP 13th-ranked Stanford (9-2), which will play for the Pac-12 title Dec. 5 in Santa Clara, Calif., is looking for a back door itself into the playoff field. Since the 2010 mismatch in South Bend, Saturday night marks the fifth straight time both teams are ranked when they meet.

And the fifth straight time skill-position players don’t dominate the pregame chalk talk.

Stanford offensive guard Josh Garnett, for whom the Cardinal won a recruiting tug-of-war with ND, and ND offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley are the game’s two biggest names.

The most compelling tidbit about Stanford’s other starting guard, senior Johnny Caspers, isn’t that the Earth Systems major studied worm compost over the summer, it’s the way he fires off the line and displays near-flawless technique in his blocking.

“I just think they don’t really have any weaknesses,” Rochell said of Stanford’ offensive front. “Generally, when you play a team, you might point out one or two guys that aren’t as strong. But with them, their whole O-Line is very solid. They’re all really strong.”

Added ND center Nick Martin, who was recruited by both schools, as was older brother and burgeoning NFL star lineman Zack Martin, “It’s one of my favorite games. They know what they’re going to get. We know what we’re going to get. It’s just a battle every single play.”

Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey — second in NCAA history in single-season, all-purpose yards (2,807) to teammate Barry Sanders Jr.’s legendary father (3,250 in 1988 for Oklahoma State) — is deep in the Heisman Trophy conversation in large part because of the way the Stanford O-Line plays.

And the 6-foot, 201-pound sophomore is the nation’s fourth-leading rusher in part because of Stanford’s keep-away tendencies on offense and vice versa.

At 35 minutes, 18 seconds in average possession time, the Cardinal not only lead the nation in clock domination, they’re one of only four teams in the past 20 years to average more than 35 minutes of possession time per game.

“For us, the game plan is less important than playing with technique,” Rochell responded when asked about bursting Stanford’s offensive tendencies. “You have to play with good hands. You have to play with good pad level. Your footwork has to be good.”

Rochell, ND’s fourth-leading tackler (55) and tops among its defensive linemen, learned the script as an observer, watching the ND-Stanford game in 2012 on TV, as a committed Irish recruit.

The Irish prevailed that rainy Oct. 13 afternoon, 20-13 in overtime, when Stanford coach David Shaw elected to run Stepfan Taylor up the middle and into the teeth of the ND defense four straight times after having the ball first and goal at the Notre Dame 4-yard line, down seven in overtime.

Taylor pushed for a yard on first down and two on second, before getting stoned on third and fourth downs in a defining moment for an Irish team that would ride their defense to the 2012 BCS National Championship Game.

“I was just a recruit hoping Notre Dame would win the rest of their games,” the 6-4, 287-pound junior said. “But you could see later, it’s just kind of the nature of this game. It’s a really good picture of what the game’s all about.”

You can see it in the numbers attached to the coaching résumés, as well. Kelly is 40-5 when his Irish teams win the rushing battle, Shaw 48-4 when Stanford does.

The Cardinal have rushed for 100 yards or more in 45 of their past 48 games, the three exceptions all losses, including a 17-14 setback to the Irish last season in South Bend.

Shaw is 26-3 when his teams win the turnover battle, Kelly 29-1 while at ND.

The missing piece in all of the trench superlatives this year is the Irish run defense. Notre Dame enters the matchup 69th nationally in rush defense (168.0 yards allowed per game), 88th in yards per carry allowed (4.62).

Rochell and his linemates have actually been stellar. It’s the back seven of the defense that have allowed long runs on a regular basis — even to weak running teams — that have skewed the averages.

It’s also the part of ND’s makeup that gets the Irish in trouble with the CFP selection committee when it applies the eye test in evaluating playoff contenders.

“It’s one of those things,” Rochell said of the lapses. “You have to play with 11 men on the field, and everyone has to do their jobs, so the biggest issue has just been mental errors.”

The Irish lost a big piece of their pass defense last Saturday night, and a strong piece of their run support as well, in senior cornerback KeiVarae Russell. He suffered a broken right tibia in the 19-16 BC escape at Fenway Park.

But the Irish are expected to get a lift from the return of starting nose guard Daniel Cage, out the past two games with a concussion. Rochell had been playing inside full-time in Cage’s absence, and the sophomore’s return allows Rochell to play primarily on the edge.

“Controlling the edge, keeping the ball inside the defense,” Kelly said of that benefit. “(Rochell) is certainly somebody that is physically strong enough to hold his ground on the edge of the defense and has been good at it all year.”

Kelly said the shortcomings around the strong defensive line have more to do with recruiting to second-year coordinator Brian VanGorder’s scheme than it does with actually flaws in the scheme or its complexity.

“We're still evolving defensively,” Kelly said. “We're still working to build our defense. We're not there yet, clearly. But it's been the kind of transition that I expected. And we're going to get better as we continue to recruit and develop our defense.”

But for Saturday night, Kelly expects his lines to rise to the occasion, to push those ugly memories from 2010 a little further into the past.

“In big games the great players rise to the occasion,” Kelly said. “And for us to win they'll have to play great. If they do, we will. If they don't, we won't. It's that simple.”

End Isaac Rochell (90) and the Notre Dame defensive line must have a strong showing against Stanford's O-Line and running game on Saturday night for the Irish to keep their playoff hopes alive. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)